STEVE KIRK and STEVE IRVINE
News staff writers
The Birmingham News
A University of Alabama defense team leaves today for Chicago, where it will fight to overturn two bowl bans and six additional scholarship reductions given to its football program by the NCAA Committee on Infractions six months ago.
An eight-person traveling party led by university counsel Stan Murphy and Mobile attorney Robert Cunningham Jr. will present the university's case at 8 a.m. Friday in front of the NCAA Infractions Appeals Committee at The Westin hotel downtown.
A decision won't be announced for several weeks.
University of Wyoming Law School Dean Jerry Parkinson will represent the infractions committee, which announced Feb.1 that it considered shutting down the Crimson Tide program after a 11/2-year investigation uncovered numerous recruiting violations by UA boosters.
The infractions committee placed Alabama on five years' probation, increased UA's self-imposed penalty of 15 scholarship reductions to 21 over three years, banned it from postseason in 2002 and 2003, disassociated three UA boosters for life and restricted all boosters from traveling on team charters, attending closed practices, assisting in summer camps and attaining sideline passes for games.
The bowl bans especially stung the Tide program, considering it is expected to lose at least $4 million in revenue if they stand.
The appeals committee was formerly chaired by newly hired Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive, but he recused himself from Alabama's appeals hearing.
That leaves a four-person committee to hear Alabama's case. It will be chaired by newly hired Clemson Athletics Director Terry Don Phillips, formerly AD at Oklahoma State. It also includes University of Southern California Faculty Athletics Representative Noel Ragsdale, Harvard University attorney Allan Ryan and Robert Stein of the American Bar Association, who is the committee's mandated member from the "general public."
It has the option of upholding the infractions committee's penalties or vacating any part of them.
The last SEC school to go before the appeals committee saw mixed results, which is likely UA's best hope. In a 1999 men's basketball case against Louisiana State University, the committee upheld all scholarship reductions against the program but vacated a postseason ban.
Alabama officials said they will not comment on the case until its conclusion, but Cunningham said, "Everyone interested in this appeal should understand that we face a very uphill battle."
Murphy made it known in a letter to NCAA President Cedric Dempsey that Alabama plans to contest nearly every penalty beyond what the university self-imposed last fall.
The point of the hearing is not to retry the case, which largely centered around alleged improper payments and benefits by boosters Logan Young, Wendell Smith and Ray Keller. In fact, the university agreed with many of the 15 allegations it faced when it went before the infractions committee on Nov.17.
It will now argue that the penalties are excessive, using other decisions as examples. For instance, on June 26 the infractions committee gave the University of California one bowl ban and 13 scholarship reductions, even though repeat offender Cal was found to lack institutional control and committed academic fraud two charges absent from UA's case to go with numerous recruiting violations.
Those close to the case say there are critical procedural issues that UA will argue loudly that the infractions committee ignored:
That the university shouldn't have been considered a repeat offender, and therefore penalized so harshly, since the 1998 infractions case against former Tide basketball assistant coach Tyrone Beamon was caught by the school and self-reported.
That the NCAA enforcement staff's use of an unidentified "secret witness" in its case is against NCAA bylaws.
That the NCAA's statute of limitations policy should have applied to the illegal recruitment of Stevenson lineman Kenny Smith in 1995, possibly the most detrimental allegation the Tide faced at Indianapolis.
That the NCAA enforcement staff failed to supply information concerning the illegal recruitment of Smith and Memphis' Albert Means in 1999 in a timely fashion.
Alabama's traveling party is much different from the one that went to Indianapolis to meet with the infractions committee. Faculty Athletics Representative Gene Marsh and former compliance director Marie Robbins will not make this trip. Both have been mostly uninvolved in the appeal process.
Repeat members of the traveling party will be Murphy, Athletics Director Mal Moore, university counsel Glenn Powell, outside counsel Rich Hilliard of the Indianapolis firm Ice Miller and former university President Andrew Sorensen, who has since begun his presidency at the University of South Carolina.
Interim university President Barry Mason will attend for the first time. But it's the other new defense members who symbolize the university's aggressive strategy for its appeal. Cunningham is a litigation attorney for the firm Cunningham, Bounds, Yance, Crowder and Brown, which successfully represented the state in a recent high-profile case against Exxon.
Meanwhile, Alabama law school graduate Charles Cooper will help as well. Cooper belongs to the Washington, D.C., firm of Cooper & Kirk.
The defense team will argue against most of the specific findings pertaining to Smith and Means, and it will also argue a charge against alleged booster Jim Johnson, a Columbus, Ga., car dealer who sold former Tide linebacker Travis Carroll a vehicle; and the handing out of four $100 bills by Keller to an unnamed Tide player in 1998 and 1999.
Alabama will not argue several findings that Young provided an improper loan to former assistant coach Ronnie Cottrell, that Means received two expense-paid recruiting visits, that Young and Keller made improper, in-person contact with recruits, and that recruits received "excessive entertainment," including parties with strippers.